Ollie: It was perhaps a bold move to go through an entire weekend of Premier League football with my girlfriend earlier this year. Well, somehow I remained undumped, so I recently went one step further and invited her to watch a Euro 2016 match with me this summer. The best way I could sell it was as a nice day in Paris, but with the brief (90 minute) distraction of some sport. The game would be on Wednesday June 22nd, Iceland vs Austria at the Stade de France – the smallest nation of the tournament vying for a historic first win of a tournament that they had thrived in so far, Iceland. They faced an Austrian side looking to bounce back from a slow start and remind people of why they were tipped to be the tournament’s dark horses.

We headed out on the Saturday for a bit of time in Normandy with my Mum and the dog at my parents’ house… Which I realise is just about the most middle class sentence that has ever been written. Regardless, this way we would catch a few games in the bars, drink large amounts of cider and eat lots of nice French food, then head to Paris for our big game with my mates driving down from Sunderland in a campervan. Personally, I couldn’t wait.

Liz’s reading material for Euro 2016

Liz: When Ollie asked me if I was interested in coming to watch a Euro 2016 game with him, he promised it would be a laugh, despite possibly being “a bit of a nothing game” (I wonder if he’s eating those words in hindsight!). I ‘uummm’d’ and ‘aaaahh’d’ before saying yes. I figured it would be fun to write another article and do something I never imagined I would do, especially given all the girlfriend points I had earned from that fateful Premier League weekend. And I never imagined I’d enjoy it quite so much!

Those of you who have been following Box to Box Football’s Euro 2016 coverage will know that I accidentally agreed to watch much, much more football by entering their sweepstake competition. I thought I’d be tearing my hair out by now, but over the last two weeks I’ve watched, learned and even formed opinions. For instance, I definitely like international football better than club football. I can get behind the fans supporting international football teams – they’re representing their country, and remain pretty consistent. Club football, however, seems to be more about the money for me, with players being traded off to other teams left, right and centre. How can fans remain loyal for life to a team that could have a complete remodelling in the space of 5 years?

Obviously I can no longer play the “I’m not interested in football” card, because even if I try to tell myself I’m not interested, the fact that I’ve bothered to form an opinion about it is just a dead giveaway. The best thing I took away from my Premier League weekend however was my love for Big Sam! And some things never change. Driving to the Eurotunnel at Dover, I’m armed and ready with Big Sam’s autobiography to read during this trip, and although I’ve only looked through the pictures so far (doesn’t everyone do that?) I can’t wait to learn all about the life of my favourite big grumpy penguin. 

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The first sighting of anything football-related spotted in France; L’Equipe praising Spain for their spanking of Turkey on Friday night

Ollie: I legitimately had steak for breakfast one morning. The dream. Must be said though, staying in a sleepy countryside town called Gournay-en-Bray, it would’ve been easy to forget that France was hosting a major tournament. I couldn’t get 5 live radio on Long Wave signal, so had to settle for BBC Radio 4 instead. While many English fans spent their first day in France getting tear gassed and fighting with Russians in Marseille, I spent mine playing ping pong and listening to Desert Island Discs. Thug life.

On the Sunday night we headed into town to find a bar that would actually be showing the France vs Switzerland game. I was legitimately the only person to get a pint there, and a bunch of teenagers watching the game were sharing a bottle of white wine between themselves. All in their French shirts, yet drinking like they were at a little dinner gathering. I came back from the loo at half-time and thought I’d missed closing time, but it turned out that literally everyone there had gone for a cigarette. No stereotypes there…

The game finished 0-0, France had a few decent chances and Paul Pogba looked more like the player his country expects him to be this summer, but France are still not looking convincing. And it’s not going to get any easier for them. There was a good atmosphere at the bar though, and the girls seemed to enjoy themselves. Liz is still not a big fan of corners, and by the end Mum was saying of Switzerland’s defensive-oriented display, “Well that’s just the Swiss isn’t it. Typical Swiss“. What does that even mean? Liz wants to bring her selfie stick to the game on Wednesday, but I tell her that they’re banned in stadiums. Not sure if this is true, but I sure hope so.

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Xherdan Shaqiri and Paul Pogba contest for the ball during the 0-0 draw between France and Switzerland

Liz: After a fun night watching the France match in town, we decided to repeat the trick for the England vs Slovakia game on Monday night. When we show up the following evening for the England game, Gournay was a ghost town. Nowhere is open. Literally, all the shutters are closed. After driving to the neighbouring town and finding nothing, we head off home and listen to the game on the radio. The French radio. In French. Now, French commentators are hilarious, they’re ridiculously excitable, but these guys really took the biscuit. At no point did they actually describe the England game, they just sounded drunk, rapidly talking over each and other and mostly debating what English songs they liked (‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ seemed most popular). England draw their match. How on Earth did England come second in their group after all that?! They’re one of my sweepstake teams, so they’d better do well or I’m prioritising my other team Poland for the next few weeks! My favourite part is at the end when the commentators called their friend called Michael Jones (some musician who’s apparently Welsh-French), to ask him what he thought of the Wales vs Russia result, which sounded much more interesting than the one I was attempting to listen to. I can only speculate on what Michael Jones thought of the Wales v Russia game. His French is perfect, and mine is not.

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Much to her disappointment, Lullah could not join us in Paris on Wednesday

Ollie: Before the tournament, Iceland vs Austria seemed a fairly unimportant game to go to. But now Iceland have become one of the most likeable teams at the tournament, a real underdog story, their fans just seem delighted to be here. In fact I’d read that around 8% of Iceland was in France for the tournament, which makes sense given their population of around 330,000. This makes them the smallest nation to ever qualify for the Euros, about the size of Leicester in fact. The most famous exports I know from Iceland were the ex-Spurs midfielder Gylfi Sigurðsson and the band Sigur Rós, and of course the country is well known for being one of the most beautiful in the world. Oh yeah, and Björk.

I love every story I hear about this Icelandic team – one of their coaches is a dentist! It’s just fantastic to see how well they’ve done, and not a hard sell to Liz at all who also loves a good underdog tale. But I like the Austrian team too, and would much rather they qualified ahead of Portugal. Technically all four teams in Group F could qualify going into this last round of matches which is exciting, but with all the new third place rules I must admit that I’ll have no idea how it will pan out for them all. Liz and I headed to Paris  with my two mates who had gotten us the tickets via Beauvais (also known as the French city with a football team named ASBO). Fair play to them, they’d driven not just from Sunderland but via Holland and Belgium along the way. Our train was rammed full of Irish fans heading to Paris to watch the Republic of Ireland vs Italy later in the day in their final ‘Group of Death’ encounter. Until today the weather had been reminiscent of home (i.e. rain, cloud, rain), but suddenly Europe remembered that it was actually summer and Paris was scorching. Instantly regretted wearing jeans.

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It was nice to see that Michael Platini still had his uses for the tournament

Liz: The sun comes out as we pull into Paris, making for a promising start! Ollie and I have a few hours to spare, so we wander from the Bastille (where we’re staying for the night) to Notre Dame and around the Latin Quarter for some lunch. On the way to Notre Dame, I spot a naked man dancing down by the Seine while being filmed. That’s cool. You keep doing you, Paris.

In light of the fights in Marseille last week, and the ‘how to survive a terrorist attack’ poster we saw in the Beauvais train station, we had agreed to be cautious and keep an eye out for any trouble. No need! There’s a wonderful buzz around the city, which is full of fans wearing Austrian, Icelandic and Irish football shirts. We arrive at the Stade de France two hours before the match to soak up the atmosphere. Just like in the city, the fans are mingling and chanting songs with no aggression whatsoever. We’re talking group selfies all round, and plenty of banter. The Austrian fans are in raucous party mode, which is really fun to watch, and the Iceland fans are just happy to be here. It gives me such a case of the warm fuzzy feelings that I can’t believe that it’s football that brought us all together. Lots of random stuff going on keeps me entertained around the stadium, especially a bunch of drummers who the Austrian fans started dancing around. The Austrian fans outnumber the Icelandic about 4 to 1, a reminder of just what a small country Iceland is and how awesome it is for them to be in their first major competition.

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This dance-off might have been disastrous if lederhosen were involved…

Ollie: After a wander around the Sorbonne in the Latin Quarter (a magical place where happy hour lasts for six hours), we headed to Saint-Denis for the 6pm kick off at the Stade de France. The security actually didn’t take all that long, felt a bit bad for Liz when she went in front of me to the inspector bloke and he just said, “You are woman. Go see a woman“, meaning she had to go to the back of a female inspector’s queue. Jokes aside, given the genuine threat that France has faced during this tournament and for the past year, it was good to know how much security had been put in place. I was waved by guards with very large guns as I was waiting for Liz the other side of the queue, and I skedaddled quickly.

I had to chuckle at the beer options, as I discovered that the 6 – 7 Carlsberg beer was 0,5% alcohol… What’s even the point? I briefly jumped at the sight of a 5 beer, but that turned out to be alcohol free. So 0,5%, or just plain zero… Curse you, football hooligans! Anyway, we were in, and the atmosphere was awesome. There seemed to be a lot more Austrians about, and everyone was in a good-natured party spirit, the sun was out, and we were close to kick off.

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The jerseys of both sides are brought onto the pitch, moments before the players walked onto the pitch at the Stade de France

Liz: I’ve made it no secret that I’m not the biggest fan of football, but I’ve been so excited about watching this game for the last few weeks! I’ve been to Anfield and Craven Cottage before to see live games, but this is something entirely different, and I love it. The first half is really exciting. We’re near the Iceland fans, and I love watching football fans in a stadium. They take on one sentient body, all moving and chanting as one. The Icelandic fans have a really impressive chant that’s very Viking war chant. Despite being utterly outnumbered, they are putting up a great fight to drown out the Austrian fans.

At 4 minutes in I turn to Ollie and remark how well Iceland are doing. He nods in agreement. Oh my God, I was right!  I can talk about football things with football fans! I’ve infiltrated them! When Iceland score their first goal I am ecstatic! Next, Austria miss a penalty and the Icelandic goalkeeper Hannes Þór Halldórsson does a crab-like victory dance to the Iceland fans behind him. He’s my new favourite person in the world. The Austrian fans, who up until this point have been chanting and singing almost non-stop, are suddenly silent. The two Austrians in front of us begin to chain smoke. This continues for the rest of the game. Watching football can be a stressful thing I guess. Iceland score another goal, but it’s quickly ruled out for being offside. I don’t know about this offside rule, guys. I’m feeling pretty bitter about it. Surely the ball in the net equals a goal?! Who cares where anyone else is when you kick it? Anyway, Iceland take this in their stride. They’re still 1-0 up. I notice the curly haired Austrian player is doing a lot of diving and I am less than impressed. I’m onto you, Curly.

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Despite being outnumbered by their Austrian counterparts, the Icelandic fans could be heard loud and clear throughout the game

Ollie: If I had to pick a game to get my girlfriend into football, as luck would have it I couldn’t have picked much better than this one. The plucky underdogs taking the lead, a missed penalty, ruled out goals, comebacks, tension, and the end. Well I’ll get to that. The offside rule still baffles and frustrates Liz, and it frustrated a few Iceland fans too after they have a goal disallowed. Julian Baumartlinger isn’t in her good books either for diving antics. The Austrian fans dominate the stadium, and I notice that a lot of their songs follow the tune of our chants – ‘When the Saints Go Marching In‘ seems to have been re-purposed to a chant in German for example. Best of all was when a ‘Stand Up if you’re Austrian‘-esque song came up, and within seconds Iceland had hit the crossbar. Cue everyone sitting down sheepishly. And they were not thrilled after Jón Bödvarsson scored to put Iceland 1-0 ahead at half time, especially given that their side had been fairly sloppy with the ball most of the half. After getting some more almost-beer, the second half began and Iceland begin trying to sit on their lead – it didn’t work against Hungary, and I was worried that it wouldn’t work here if they weren’t careful…

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Alessandro Schöpf scores for Austria to level the game at 1-1 in the 60th minute

Liz: The second half begins with more domination from Austria. They may have begun the game underestimating Iceland, but they certainly aren’t doing that now!  They almost score a goal with David Alaba but it bounces off an Icelandic player.  The Austrians in front of me are furious.  I ask why they’re so angry.

Ah, they almost scored, but it was cleared off the line” Ollie tells me.

What does that mean?

It means it was cleared off the line

What do those words mean?!” I replied.

It means they almost scored but the ball bounced off an Icelandic player so it didn’t go in

Sounds like a fancier way of saying ‘missed’ in my opinion. To my disappointment, the Icelandic goalie is now on the other side of the pitch, farewell sweet prince… This also means he is in front of all the Austrian fans, who try to put him off by whistling every time he kicks the ball. Their whistling sounds like the screaming of a thousand tortured souls. I spot a Runcorn flag across the stadium, which is near where I’m originally from up north! What a small world! Austria’s Alessandro Schöpf scores an incredible goal to equalise to 1-1. The Austrians in front of me are over the moon. One rips off his shirt and spins it around in the air. I’m happy for them, but I don’t want a draw. Draws are boring. If I ever become head of the football council I will make a law that football games aren’t allowed to finish until someone wins, even if that means they take hours. After the Austrian goal, the Iceland fans are a little subdued but still chanting, still hoping.

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Iceland attack the Austria goal in the second half of their Group F encounter

Ollie: Getting into the last few minutes, and trying to figure out what this means for England in the Round of 16 hurts my brain. Are we now playing Portugal? Speaking of, thank Christ this game is exciting, as the Portugal vs Hungary 3-3 scoreline flashes across the big screen. If this had been 0-0, that would’ve been the equivalent of the game show, “And here’s what you could have won!“. Plus Liz may have had a few words to say on that one…

Still loving the Icelandic crowd’s slow chant – like something from an army in Game of Thrones. Will their side see it through though, it seems a draw is enough for them? Austria on the other hand need to win, and they are now throwing everything at their Icelandic opponents. Liz’s mind seems untroubled by third place thoughts, as she notes that having seen all the ginger beards of many of the Icelandic fans, she can conclude that I’m probably not from Iceland. Good to know.

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The Iceland team celebrate their injury time winner, a goal that gave them their first ever major tournament victory

Liz: We’re into injury time, and the game seems to be stuck near Iceland’s goal, with Iceland defending all they can. Ollie wonders aloud if they have decided they’ll be happy with just a draw. The Austrian keeper comes out really far into the pitch and I think to myself, wouldn’t it be so cool if an Icelandic player just got the ball and ran the length of the pitch and scored?

Suddenly, it happens! The ball is making its way to the Austrian goal, and it’s now a panicked sprint between Austrian goalie and Icelandic forward. Oh my God, they’ve scored! The last kick of the game, and they’ve scored to win it!!! I’m dancing and cheering in celebration. My chain-smoking Austrian neighbours get up and leave instantly. I feel bad for them, but now the whole Iceland team including the managers have all rushed onto the pitch to celebrate, and I’m so happy for them. This means they’re through to the knock out stages of the Euros. It actually means they’ll be playing England next (is it bad that I think I’ll be supporting Iceland on that one?). I later saw this video of an Icelandic commentator reacting to the goal, so adorable – and I thought French commentators were excitable!

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Utter disbelief from both of us at the high drama that finished the game. Behind us the Icelandic players went to their fans to begin the celebrations

Ollie: Remarkable. It’s hard to top a late winner, and it’s been a tournament full of them. But substitute Arnór Ingvi Traustason scoring with the last kick of the game at our end of the pitch was something else, because of what it meant to the team, to the fans, to the country. On the counter-attack, to give Iceland an historic first victory at the Euros, and even better considering that they were denied their first win a few days ago by a last minute goal from group leaders Hungary. They qualify for the Round of 16 in second place, no third place shenanigans. They also finish above Portugal, after all the nonsense that Cristiano Ronaldo said about them. It’s just great to see, the atmosphere was absolutely incredible as they celebrated the victory – the crowd went insane.

Given England have struggled to score and Iceland have defended very well, that Round of 16 game is very intriguing. So overall an awesome game with a great atmosphere anyway, but that finale added a whole new level to it. Even Liz leaped up and danced in the aisles to celebrate, clearly it’s a tournament of miracles on and off the pitch.

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Shane Long and goal scorer Robbie Brady celebrate the late winner that saw Republic of Ireland beat Italy 1-0, and thus qualify for the knock out stages

Liz: After the game we squeezed on a train back into the centre of Paris. It only took 4 stops to realise that the arm I was leaning on wasn’t Ollie’s but some Austrian fan. Sorry about the sweat, buddy! Speaking to Icelandic fans, they seemed a little stunned but utterly delighted about the result today. We grab some drinks on the Rue de Lappe in the Bastille, where the party seems to already be in full swing, with people from many countries having a laugh and watching the final games of the day.

This really has been a day for miracles, as we manage to catch the end of the Republic of Ireland vs Italy game, arriving in a bar just in time to see Ireland score the winning goal!! I’m so proud of my country, Ollie mentioned that they were in something called a ‘Group of Death’, which didn’t sound promising. But they got through and are even playing France! The players were crying at the end, it meant so much to them. As we walk back to our Airbnb, I overhear my favourite football chant to date. A group of defeated, inebriated Austrian men singing, “We’re going home to our sexy wives”, as inspired by the Irish chants to Sweden last week. Glad to know that they’re seeing a silver lining!

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Rue de Lappe in the Bastille, the morning after the night before

Ollie: With a heavy heart, and an even heavier head (the beer in the Bastille was a little more than 0,5%, to be sure), on Thursday morning Liz and I headed to London. We armed ourselves with some pastries and cheese that I’d bought for the office, which made the entire carriage smell within an hour. I even spotted Glenn Hoddle on our Eurostar, perhaps he was getting a break from punditry before the Round of 16 matches at the weekend. It would’ve been great to stay for longer, but we got back later that day so that we could to vote in the EU referendum (it’s now Saturday, and to say the result didn’t go quite as I’d hoped is an understatement).

It was great fun to get to see the Euros up close, both in the bars and at the stadium. And what a great way to see it, not with teams that we would’ve necessarily supported before the tournament, but in Iceland’s case they are a team that have captured the imagination of fans across Europe. They aren’t a team of superstars, but they very much a team, together to the final whistle, and it’s inspiring to see. Congratulations to them on making sure that their fairy tale story continued on. With this, a live game, I’ve now ticked off all the ways to get Liz to watch football, has it worked? Only time will tell, but if it’s international live football that peaks her interest, I’m in for an expensive summer. Now all I’ve got to do is get her into the rugby…

Liz: Much to my surprise, perhaps I’ve discovered the point at which I truly enjoy football: international games live. The atmosphere was just brilliant, and most importantly it was so much fun. Sporting drama can be entertaining as it turns out too, especially if there’s a last minute goal involved. Plus, the crowd noise can drown out Ollie trying to explain why the offside rule matters… Sorry, I just don’t see it. Iceland have defied all the odds so far, and I’m sure, in part, that it’s down to how exciting and new this is for them. I think England could take a few pointers from this. Roy Hodgson arrogantly decided to give his best players “a rest” when England played Slovakia, and what happened? A 0-0 draw. I could go on about how insulting that is to English fans who bought tickets and travelled abroad to watch their country play football, but my point here is that complacency is not cool. Ronaldo, now infamously, said that Iceland had a “small team mentality”, that they celebrate like they have won the Euros, and that they will go nowhere in this competition. He was right about one thing: they do celebrate like they have won the Euros, and that is exactly why, no matter how far they get in the knock out stages of the competition, 2016 will be remembered as Iceland’s year. Iceland made history today and gave me the most exciting game of football I’ve ever seen. This is surely the stuff that makes football the most popular spectator sport in the world. And I am so glad that I got to see it an experience it live, an exciting piece of history for a little country that has dreamed big.